The 1980s Madrid Electronic Music Scene

In 1980s Madrid, La Movida Madrileña, a hedonistic counterculture movement emerged in the wake of Franco’s death. With it came a wave of electronic music that is seeing a reappraisal four decades on…

After the death of General Francisco Franco in November 1975, during a period when the apparatus of dictatorship he had built in post-Second World War Spain crumbled away, an initial, defiant punk sound was born.

La Movida Madrileña (The Madrid Scene) blew into life in Madrid in 1980 and soon grew throughout the country. Across film, art, photography and music, the young and newly liberated of the Spanish counterculture began recreating the sounds they were hearing elsewhere on the continent, including post-punk, new wave and classic 1980s European electronica. Regrettably, the movement has since been neglected by the wider world in favour of the advances in electronic sound made in the UK, Germany and – later in the decade – the USA.

For Loïc Diaz Ronda, a Toulouse-based film and music programmer, the era has always held a particular fascination, especially as the music made during La Movida is largely unexplored outside Spain.

In 2018, in collaboration with the Zürich record shop and label Bongo Joe, Ronda compiled ‘La Contra Ola – Synth-Wave And Post-Punk From Spain 1980-86’, which collated some of the early work from this period. Digging deeper into the backgrounds of the artists he covered, he’s now following that record up with ‘La Ola Interior (Spanish Ambient & Acid Exoticism 1983-1990)’, which explores a different facet of the post-Movida sound.

“Franco dies, then you have the democratic transition, and culturally and socially there is an explosion after 40 years of dictatorship,” says Ronda. “But la nueva ola [new wave] bands very soon became more commercial. By about 1983, it was obvious the post-punk movement had been drowned by the industry, so some artists went underground.

“The style on the first record was better known in Spain – they were doing pop music with machines – but the second is more experimental. There were some tracks on the first album that didn’t fit, and I realised there was a sound territory in Spanish ambient and what I call acid exoticism that hadn’t been documented. So I began to look for music.”

The tracks he refers to, the ones which set ‘La Ola Interior’ (‘The Inner Wave’) in motion, are truly striking, and give the impression that an over-arching scene to rival British industrial or German kosmische was yet to be discovered in 1980s Spain.

The first of these compositions is ‘Sheikh’ (1988) by Madrid trio Esplendor Geométrico, a surging wave of Aphex Twin-approximating techno-industrial synthesiser rhythms with an Arabic voice chant woven throughout. The second is ‘Última Instancia’ (1986) by Orfeón Gagarin, an alias of prolific Madrid-based electronic producer Miguel Ángel Ruiz, whose liquid acid beat and trembling ambient synth sustains predate Orbital and pay tribute to Brian Eno. Ruiz, worked at home with synthesisers and drone loops to create music which anticipated Mouse On Mars or the Warp style, and later experimented with oriental sounds.

“The technology was moving fast,” says Ronda. “Synthesisers were cheaper and you had good tape reproduction, so young musicians could make their own cassettes. Meanwhile independent labels that were born during the Movida, like DRO (Discos Radioactivos Organizados) and GASA (Grabaciones Accidentales), began to have commercial success and needed good sound engineers, so they hired some musicians that had been marginalised by the movement in the 1970s.

“In ‘La Ola Interior’ you have these two streams – musicians from the tape underground culture and producers that were working for independent imprints. They shared the same interests in beatless electronic music, in exoticism, in non-Western music.”

Among the producers Ronda has selected is Luis Delgado, who created music on his own and with Finis Africae, Juan Alberto Arteche’s project, a fusion of ambient electronica and Arabic styles influenced by Jon Hassell’s ‘Fourth World’ albums and the folk music of Spain.

“Delgado worked in the studio at night or during free hours,” says Ronda. “He loved non-Western instruments, but he couldn’t tell how to play them, so he would focus on the sound they made, adding electronic treatments to make a strange music. Finis Africae was an open workshop – more of a collective than a band. Some of their pieces had a tropical sound, others were longer, beatless, atmospheric tracks.”

According to Ronda, the scene in Barcelona – different to elsewhere in Spain at this time – was more influenced by English and American sounds, but was also more experimental. He explains it through the prism of Jaime Gonzalo’s book on the music of the period, ‘La Ciudad Secreta’ (‘The Secret City’). It encompasses the music of Victor Nubla, a former jazz improviser who began sampling Balkan folk music in his work, and the duo Camino Al Desván, whose minimal electronics were complemented by guitar and violin.

Of these artists, Ronda claims only Suso Sáiz has anything like an international public profile, with his music recently re-released on the Music From Memory label.

“He had problems sleeping,” explains Ronda, “so he would work at night on guitar loops and synths – he called them ‘hypnotics’ because he made this music to help him sleep. He had his public work as an avant-garde musician and a classical and minimalist composer, and the work he did at home, which was much more personal and ambient.”

A project like this can only begin to scratch the surface of a movement which covered a whole country for almost an entire decade. Ronda explains that when the sounds of ‘La Ola Interior’ died away, the reasons were universal – greater ease of access to computer and then laptop recording equipment, and the arrival of CDs and the internet. In the UK, when we think of Spanish music at the beginning of the 90s, we think of house music in Ibiza.

“It’s a Spanish problem, in a way,” says Ronda, rationalising the obscurity of these fine musicians at home and abroad. “A lot of Spaniards overlook their own culture. They think, ‘If it’s made in Spain, it’s not that good’, you know? It’s also that the United States and the UK are the most productive territories for that kind of music, so maybe they don’t look at music made in countries like Spain, they think there’s nothing.

“It’s a paradox that in countries that weren’t very industrialised you still have that futurist movement in modern art and music. In Spain, Italy, Russia – countries where there isn’t much technology – you are very interested in it, you want to get it. These musicians should be more famous, even in underground circles.”

‘La Ola Interior (Spanish Ambient & Acid Exoticism 1983-1990)’ is out on Bongo Joe

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